Oilworkers. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Workers in the nation’s petroleum industry. The jargon, stories, jokes, customs, and
songs of oilworkers address the dangerous conditions and long hours of the job, the
relative isolation of the work sites, and a strong sense of pride in work among this
predominantly male occupational culture. This body of folklore also reflects the
technological advancements and larger economic forces that have fundamentally
transformed the nature of life and work for oilworkers during the 20th century.
For more than 130 years, American oilworkers have built derricks and tanks, drilled
wells, monitored production, constructed pipelines, and refined crude oil, both in this
country and abroad. Until the mid-1970s, the United States ranked as the world’s leading
producer of oil. The nation’s petroleum industry dates from 1859, when Edwin L.Drake
and his drilling crew struck oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Oil exploration and
production expanded into New York, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and across the
Midwest and Southwest by the turn of the 20th century. During this period, John
D.Rockefeller built Standard Oil Company, using technological innovation, bureaucratic
management, and large-scale capitalization to achieve a virtual monopoly of the nation’s
oil-refming industry. Similarly, Gulf Oil Corporation, Phillips Petroleum Company,
Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation, and other major American conglomerates
consolidated the holdings of smaller companies and vertically integrated their operations
to engage in all phases of petroleum exploration, production, refming, and marketing.
Development of the internal combustion engine and the mass marketing of
automobiles created a high demand for gasoline and made petroleum one of the world’s
major sources of power. After 1900 the center of the nation’s petroleum industry shifted
to Texas, Oklahoma, and California. The famous discoveries of oil at Spindletop, near
Beaumont, Texas, in 1901, and near Henderson, Texas, in 1930, opened the rich Gulf Coast and east Texas fields, attracting Eastern oil companies, land speculators, and
masses of migratory oilworkers, and transforming the Southwest from a rural,
agricultural region to an urbanized, industrial one.
Since the early days of the petroleum industry, workers have organized unions to fight
for the adoption of an eighthour workday, higher wages, and worker safety laws. The Oil
Field, Gas Well, and Refmery Workers (OFGWRW) union and its successor, Oil
Workers International Union (OWIU) have been the major oil unions. Landmark strikes
in the labor history of oilworkers occurred at the Standard Oil Company’s refinery in
Bayonne, New Jersey (1914–1916), in the Gulf Coast oil fields of Texas and Louisiana
(1917–1918), at the Mid-Continent Petroleum Corporation’s refmery in Tulsa, Oklahoma
(1938–1940), at several companies’ refmeries across the nation (1945–1946), and at the
Shell Oil Company’s refmeries in the Southwest and California (1973).
Historically, production and pipeline workers in the nation’s petroleum industry have
been chiefly native-born White men and, to a lesser extent, northern and eastern
European immigrants. Some Mexicans and African Americans did secure employment in
oil-field work, especially during labor shortages and in more recent years. In contrast,
refmery workers have constituted a more ethnically and racially diverse group. In the
Northeast, they have been primarily of southern and eastern European stock, while rural
Whites and Mexicans have predominated in Southwestern refmeries. Except as
secretaries and office staff, women did not generally work in the petroleum industry until the 1970s, when affirmative action and equal-opportunity laws opened the way for their
After World War II, the major petroleum companies expanded oil exploration and
production in foreign countries, closing down some American fields. Beginning in the
1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, oilworkers lost jobs as the United States imported
more foreign oil and the petroleum industry increasingly automated and mechanized its
wells and refineries. In 1974 the then Soviet Union replaced the United States as the
world’s leading producer of petroleum, and two years later the United States slipped to
third behind Saudi Arabia. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 1967 and
offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and along the California coast created some new
jobs in the industry, but in the 1990s the United States, the world’s largest consumer of
oil, remains heavily dependent on petroleum from the Middle East and other foreign
Documentation of oil-field lore began shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when
Clark S.Northrup of Cornell University published two brief articles on the language of
oilworkers in the Pennsylvania, NewYork, and West Virginia fields (Northrup 1903–
1904). Generally, however, folklorists and dialect scholars have concentrated on the more
recently opened fields of Texas, Oklahoma, and California (Brooks 1928; Dignowity
1927; Pond 1932). During the 1920s and 1930s, John Lee Brooks, Hartman Dignowity,
Frederick Pond, and others documented the stories and jargon of the petroleum industry
in the Southwest and California (Brooks 1928; Dignowity 1927; Pond 1932). In the late
1940s, Lalia Phipps Boone, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, began a
comprehensive study of the occupational language of Southwestern oilworkers that
resulted in the publication of The Petroleum Dictionary (1952). In a 1969 Ph.D.
dissertation titled Lexicon of the Texas Oil Fields, written at East Texas State University,
Elizabeth K.Martin surveyed the changes that had occurred in Texas oil-field speech
since Boone’s study appeared.
Mody Boatright was the first scholar to systematically collect and analyze the
occupational folklore of Southwestern oil-field workers. In 1945 he published his
pioneering collection of tales, Gib Morgan: Minstrel of the Oil Fields. His classic study,
Folklore of the Oil Industry (1963), contains lore about the search for oil, accounts of the
popular stereotypes of the driller, geologist, and oil promoter, among others, as well as
oil-field songs, tall tales, and anecdotes. Boatright’s final book, Tales from the Derrick
Floor: A People’s History of the Oil Industry (1970), cowritten with William A. Owens,
consists of transcriptions of oral-history interviews that the authors conducted with Texas
oil pioneers during the 1950s. Between 1978 and 1985, Roger M. and Diana Davids
Olien also recorded an extensive series of interviews that resulted in several books on the
social history of theTexas oil industry (Olien and Olien 1982, 1986). The folklore of
refinery workers has received litde attention from scholars, although, in America’s
Working Man: Work, Home, and Politics among Blue-Collar Property Owners (1984),
David Halle explores the importance of religion, ethnicity, and holidays among a New
Jersey community of refinery workers and their families.
Between 1900 and 1945, rural Texans and Oklahomans left farms and ranches to find
work in the region’s oil fields and refineries, while drillers and laborers from
Pennsylvania and West Virginia oil patches also flocked to newly opened fields of the
Southwest. Migratory workers and their families followed oil booms from field to fleld in search of economic opportunity and the relatively high wages of the petroleum industry.
Oil-field work has traditionally attracted a diverse group of men, including cowboys,
farmers, salesmen, and college students, because jobs generally paid better than most
unskilled and semiskilled ones. In the Southwest, the largest of the oil fields employed
thousands of production and pipeline workers, who worked in small crews monitoring
wells and constructing vast networks of pump stations and pipelines that transported
crude oil to refineries. Other oil-field workers, such as rig and tank builders and drillers,
generally hired out to contractors rather than work directly for petroleum companies. Oilfield work was uncertain and generally shortterm employment, as booms quickly turned
to busts. Only production and pipeline workers remained after a well began pumping,
while drillers, rig builders, and roughnecks (a member of a rotary drilling crew) scurried
to the next boom or drifted into other lines of work. Traditional patterns of racism and
ethnic discrimination generally blocked employment for African Americans and
Mexicans in the petroleum industry, with skilled and semiskilled jobs reserved almost
exclusively for White men.
Throughout its history, oil-field work has been characterized by hard, physically
demanding labor, long hours, and harsh conditions at a relatively isolated work site.
According to a 1920 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 75 percent of drillers and
production workers in the Southwest and California worked seven days a week, as did 33
percent of pipeliners and 25 percent of refinery workers. Oil-field work, as the expression
goes, “teaches you to sweat in freezing weather,” and roughnecks worked in rain, sleet,
subzero temperatures, high winds, dust storms, and scorching heat. Jobs were also
dangerous: Workers could be injured or killed by faulty equipment, open gear boxes and
belt drives, a falling load of pipe, electrocution, gas blowouts, and well fires.
In contrast to oil-field work, refinery work was more settled, regimented, and
industrialized. The largest refineries employed thousands of workers, who converted
crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, lubricating oils, petrochemicals, and other
products. Refinery work was generally hot, dirty, and smelly, but its employees have
ranked among the nation’s highest-paid industrial laborers since the 1930s. Refineries
were usually located within a 100 or so miles of oil fields, including major facilities at
Pittsburgh; Cleveland; New York City; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Hammond, Indiana; and
Port Arthur, Texas. Bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe of Kentucky worked in
an oil refinery in northwestern Indiana, as did masses of other White Southerners who
migrated to Midwestern cities during the Great Depression and World War II. Eastern
refinery workers were chiefly Poles, Slovaks, Irish, Germans, and Italians, and
predominantly Roman Catholic. Churches served as the cultural and social centers of
ethnic neighborhoods, in which working-class communities celebrated baptisms,
weddings, ethnic festiyals, and holidays (St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and Pulaski
Day), attended funerals, played bingo, and sent their children to parochial schools.
Wartime expansion of the Gulf Coast petroleum industry opened refinery jobs to
working-class Mexican men, but they still faced occupational discrimination and
harassment from Anglo foremen and fellow workers. Companies chiefly relegated
Mexicans to the unskilled, lowest-paying, and least desirable jobs in plants.
Historically, oilworkers have been one of the least organized groups of industrial
workers in the United States. Although earlier unions appeared in the Eastern fields after
the Civil War, the first national oilworkers’ union, the International Brotherhood of Oil and Gas Well Workers (OGWW) of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), formed
in Ohio and Indiana in 1899. During World War I, the AF of Laffiliated Oil Field, Gas
Well, and Refinery Workers Union (OFGWRW), chartered in 1918, organized
oilworkers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and California. Standard Oil Company, Gulf Oil
Corporation, and other major petroleum companies refused to bargain collectively with
oil unions and practiced antilabor tactics, such as hiring rural White Texans and Mexican
immigrants to break strikes in the Southwest. Petro leum companies sponsored corporate
welfare programs (pensions, sickness and accident compensation, medical benefits, and
company unions) in order to defuse unionization and to generate worker loyalty. As late
as 1933, less than one-tenth of the nation’s one million oilworkers were organized. One
of the greatest periods of union growth occurred between 1933 and 1934, spurred by a
series of New Deal labor legislation. The Oil Workers International Union (OWIU),
formed in 1936 as an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO),
organized fields and refineries in the Southwest during the late 1930s. OWIU
membership doubled between 1941 and 1946, encouraged by the pro-union policies of
the National War Labor Board. In 1955 the OWIU merged with the Gas, Coke, and
Chemical Union to form the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), and
since the 1960s the union has focused chiefly on worker safety and health issues in its
organizing campaigns and national contracts.
Before World War II, living conditions in Southwestern oil-field camps and
boomtowns were often primitive, uncomfortable, and unsanitary. Families lived in
makeshift housing of all sorts, including shacks, tents, trailers, and abandoned railroad
cars and buses. Single men sometimes slept in boardinghouses and company bunkhouses.
Beginning in the 1920s, some of the major oil corporations provided workers and their
families with company housing, which usually consisted of shotgun houses with outdoor
toilets. Inadequate water supplies and improper sewage disposal caused outbreaks of
dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases. Oil boomtowns were generally overcrowded and
bustling places with a few stores, cafes, saloons, and hotels clustered along an unpaved
main street. Other common types of boomtown businesses included hamburger stands,
chili parlors, filling stations, dance halls, and brothels.
Local farmers and small-town residents frequently looked down upon and ostracized
transient oilworkers and their families, calling them “oil-field trash.” Participation in
churches, social clubs, and school activities served as an important route for oil-working
families to achieve the desired level of respectability. Religious denominations of
Southwestern oil-field workers included Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Lutheran,
and Roman Catholic, and congregations sometimes built churches on land donated by oil
companies. The high rate of mobility among oilworkers often meant a series of
relocations, adjustments, and hardships, as families withdrew their children from school,
packed up their household belongings, and traveled to the next job. In oil-field camps and
boomtowns, social and kinship networks were not as strong as those in more settled areas
because of the transient nature of oil work. Nevertheless, oil-field people developed
close-knit communities, in which neighbors borrowed from one another, relied upon one
another for child care, and contributed money or food goods to those families who
suffered hard times, sickness, or a death. Oil-field families frequently socialized together
at Saturday night house parties and Sunday afternoon barbecues where couples danced to
music and drank homemade beer. Others found diversions in dance halls, beer joints, tent shows, motion pictures shows, and company-sponsored baseball teams. Oil-field culture
has greatly admired the values of aggressiveness and toughness symbolized in high
school football, a sport that retains an enormous fan following in Texas. Workers also
have demonstrated a strong loyalty to the state’s college and professional teams,
including the University of Texas Longhorns, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Houston
Southwestern boomtowns offered workers plenty of amusements on which to spend
their leisure time and hardearned money. Oil-field workers were notorious for their
drinking, gambling, fighting, and generally rowdy behavior, but, in some ways, their
legendary bouts of drinking on payday helped foster a sense of community and solidarity
among them. Occupational custom, for instance, dictated that a roughneck who made a
mistake on the job (known as a “boll weevil stunt”) had to buy a round of drinks for his
crew. But drinking was also often destructive to workers’ health and family life, resulting
in chronic alcoholism, broken marriages, and countless incidents of domestic abuse. After
the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Southwestern oil boom spawned the creation of
honky tonks and roadside beer joints located on the outskirts of small towns, where
working-class patrons could drink, dance, and listen to country-western music. The
region’s oil-field culture also produced a handful of countrymusic stars—such as Hank
Cochran, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, and Don Williams—who once worked, or whose
fathers worked, as drillers and roughnecks.
Oil-field workers throughout United States possess a distinct occupational language
consisting chiefly of technical terms and slang words. The argot of this almost
exclusively male culture is peppered with obscene terms and sexual imagery, as in the
terms “ass scratchers,” “bastard file,” “bull prick,” “candy ass,” “cow’s cock,” “mother
fucker,” “pecker neck,” “suck ass,” and “weed whore.” Technological innovation in the
petroleum industry has contributed to changes in occupational jargon and to competition
between certain groups of workers. For example, as the superior technology of rotary
drilling rigs (which employ a revolving drill bit attached to the end of a string of pipe)
began after 1901 to replace the older cable-tool method of drilling (which operates by
means of a suspended cable that repeatedly lifts and drops a drill bit) in the Southwest
and California, the rivalry between rotary drillers and cable-tool drillers sparked a verbal
contest of insults. Cable-tool drillers derided rotary drillers as “swivel necks,” “chain
breakers,” and “rig runners,” while rotary drillers responded by calling their rivals
“jarheads,” “rope chokers,” and “yo-yo drillers.”
Nicknames are also popular among oil-field workers as crew evaluations of a fellow
worker. Nicknames, some of them obscene, usually reflect a man’s physical appearance,
behavior, specific job, work habits, or native city or state (Tiny, Fort Worth Red,
Alabama Joe, Mope Pole Slim, Big Hole Bill). State rivalries between oilworkers led to
the coining of a host of colorful nicknames as well. During the 19th century,
Pennsylvanians referred to West Virginians as “snake-hunters” or later simply as
“snakes.” West Virginians returned the favor by lampooning Pennsylvanians as “starving
owls” or “horse thieves.” Other pejorative labels included “scissorbill” to denote Illinois
drillers, “yellow hammer” for Ohioans, and “prune picker” for Californians.
Traditionally, occupational pranks and practical jokes have been a hallmark of oilfield workers. In the late 20th century, seasoned members of a drilling crew still might
send an inexperienced man (known as a “boll weevil”) to retrieve such fictional tools as “pipe stretchers” or “left-handed monkey wrenches.” Roughnecks also perform a host of
initiation rites to test the mettle of a new recruit, to demonstrate to him his ignorance of
oil-field custom, and—if judged worthy by the other men—to ceremonially induct him
into the crew. In one rite, known as “lifting,” crew members smear the genitals of an
unsuspecting “boll weevil” with a sealing compound used in drilling. Another rite
consists of tricking a blindfolded novice into destroying his own safety helmet with an
axe. Jokes told by oil-field workers are often scatological and include stereotypical
characters such as the roughneck, the driller, the farmer, and the prostitute. According to
Jim Harris, contemporary oil-field jokes from the Llano Estacado region of TexasNew
Mexico are frequently about Arabs, reflecting the importance of the Middle East in
petroleum production (Harris 1982).
The tall tales and stories of the Southwestern oil fields indicate that skill, physical
strength, and endurance are prized by workers. Gib Morgan, a cable-tool driller, is the
bestknown oil-field hero in the Southwest. Morgan, who was born in 1842 in western
Pennsylvania, followed the oil boom across the nation during the latter half of the 19th
century. Along the way, he told stories of his hair-raising oil-field experiences, and
eventually he himself became the protagonist in a family of tall tales once known to
many drilling crews throughout the Southwest and California. Paul Bunyan, who came to
represent rotary drillers, replaced Morgan as the chief oil-field hero sometime between
1910 and 1920. Tall tales about Bunyan, who was imported from the Northwest woods to
the Southwestern oil fields, describe him as a rig builder, pipeliner, or tank builder. John
Lee Brooks and other field collectors compiled only fragmentary accounts of Bunyan
tales, however. Another oil worker superman, Kemp Morgan, a rotary driller whose
sensitive nose allowed him to smell oil underground, appears to be the creation of writers
rather than of drillers and roughnecks.
Folklorists and collectors have located only a handful of occupational songs from
Southwestern oil-field workers. Mody Boatright collected the full texts of only two
songs, an untitled one about a luckless roughneck and another about “The DyingToolie”
(also known as “On the Allegheny Shore”). “There was some singing in the oil fields and
attempts were made to compose songs about oil field people and their work,” Boatright
explained in Folklore of the Oil Industry, “but none of the efforts was of sufficient appeal
to maintain more than brief and local distribution” (Boatright 1963:155). According to
Boatright and Richard M.Dorson, the transient nature of the oilfield work force and its
high rate of turnover disrupted any sort of tradition of occupational songs. Several
oilworker songs have been preserved on commercial sound recordings, however. There
are at least two oil-union songs in existence, although their composer was not himself an
oilworker. In 1942 the OWIU commissioned the Almanac Singers, a folksong group of
political radicals headquartered in New York City, to write and record two songs
“combining union-building strategies with win-the-war sentiments” (Green 1993:210).
Woody Guthrie, a member of the group and an Oklahoma native familiar with oil-field
work, composed “Boomtown Bill” and “Keep That Oil a-Rolling” for the assignment.
Guthrie also wrote another song, probably around this time, called “Boomtown
Gallyhouse” about a pipeliner’s sexual adventures in a Borger, Texas, brothel. Several
songs from the post-World War II era, most of them performed in a country-western
style, capture the occupational jargon and nature of work in the Southwestern oil fields.
In 1953, for instance, Ramblin’ Jimmie Dolan recorded a version of “Tool Pusher on a Rotary Rig” for Capitol Records, while Jimmy Simpson cut “Oilfield Blues” for Republic
Records. Former oilworker Alex Zanetis’ album Oil Fields (1964) contains a dozen songs
about work and life in the Southwestern oil fields, including “Roughneck,” “ToolPusher,” and “Wildcats from San Antonio.”
Patrick Huber
Brooks, John Lee. 1928. Paul Bunyan: Oil Man. In Follow de Drinkin’ Gou’d, ed. J.Frank Dobie.
Texas Folklore Society Publication No. 7. Austin: Texas Folklore Society, p. 44–54.
Dignowity, Hartman. 1927. Nicknames in Texas Oil Fields. In Texas and Southwestern Lore, ed.
J.Frank Dobie. Texas Folklore Society Publication No. 6. Austin: Texas Folklore Society, pp.
Dorson, Richard M. 1973. Oil Drillers. In America in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to
the Present. NewYork: Pantheon, pp. 214–234.
Green, Archie. 1993. Woody’s Oil Songs. In Songs about Work: Essays in Occupational Culture
for Richard A. Reuss, ed. Archie Green. Folklore Institute Special Publication No. 3.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 208–220.
Harris, Jim. 1982. Oil Field Jokes from the Llano Estacado. In T for Texas, ed. Francis
E.Abernethy. Texas Folklore Society Publication No. 44. Dallas: E-Heart, pp. 213—218.
Northrup, Clark S. 1903–1904. The Language of the Oil Wells. Dialea Notes 2:338–346; 373–393.
Olien, Roger M., and Diana Davids Olien. 1982. Oil Booms: Social Change in Five Texas Towns.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
——. 1986. Life in the Oil Fields. Austin: Texas Monthly Press.
Pond, Frederick R. 1932. Language of the California Oil Fields. American Speech 7:261–272.
Winfrey, James W. 1944. Oil Patch Talk. In From Hell to Breakfast, ed. Mody C.Boatright and
Donald Day. Texas Folklore Society Publication No. 19. Austin: Texas Folklore Society;
Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, pp. 139–148.